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Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Books
Date: 13 February 2006


It’s been the literary event of the year so far, but Waters’ latest novel is disappointing. By Max Dunbar

You would think that being a talented and popular novelist would be the best thing in the world- and most of the time, you’d be dead right. But Freud said that success can be as dangerous as failure, and he was right, too. The artist who becomes loved and rich by telling stories can get unsatisfied. He feels a restless yearning. He wants to be taken seriously.

Consider Stephen King’s late-stage novel Bag of Bones. King is probably the most successful writer on the planet, and despite what many would have you believe, there is a reason for this. As well as being a born storyteller, King has a searing insight into the human condition and can write a better prose line than a thousand Zadie Smiths. He was vilified by the critics nonetheless because he put story before theme and because the novels contained supernatural elements- made-up stuff, in other words. Many of King’s countless forewords show a resentment towards his critics- a sickness for being called ‘the literary equivalent of a Big Mac,’ and Bag of Bones was a last-ditch attempt to join the golf club.

It remains his worst novel. Pretentious, overwritten, and slow-paced to the point of arrhythmia, the paperback nevertheless had more raves on its covers than the rest of King’s work put together. The critics loved it anyway because it followed the dominant memes of literary criticism; ambiguity before clarity, introspection before empathy and a sly half-assertion that anything that is popular must be bad and to make the reader keep turning the page amounts to some vulgar sellout. I’m afraid that Sarah Waters has fallen for this sorry myth as well.

The Night Watch is a long book about World War Two which begins in 1947, flips back to 1944 and then again back to 1941 (The time structure of the book sounds like it’s going to be significant- it’s not). The main characters are a couple of women who work in the Home Guard, an office worker who is having an affair with a soldier and a gay man who spends the entire war in prison. That’s it. After the fast plot and pace of Tipping the Velvet, it is a little disconcerting to get halfway through this vast book and realise that nothing has actually happened- or is ever going to. Velvet was a classic tale of one woman’s self-discovery, a story of romance and travel in the best traditions of Dickens and Tolstoy. But all the verve, love and wit has been sucked out of Waters’ prose. What’s left in the Night Watch is weak, anodyne, with all the lazy vagueness and stultifying ennui of some idiot undergraduate’s poetry.

I’m being a little harsh here, but I think my harshness is justified because I know that Waters is a better writer than this. And Night Watch isn’t all bad. You can see that years of research have gone into the book and it’s interesting to get the same skewed perspective on the Blitz that Waters brought to the Victorian age- to see the hidden stories behind our cheesy, sepia-toned memories. Waters gives us conscientious objectors, backstreet abortions, anti-patriots. It’s easy to forget that the prison population doubled during wartime as the British people came up with ingenious ways of making money out of our finest hour. My personal favourite is the ‘Bomb Lark,’ a kind of insurance scam where people would go to the authorities, claim that their house had been levelled by German missiles and then be reimbursed for its fictitious contents. There’s a great Carl Hiaasen-style crime novel waiting to be written about the second world war. The prisoner who shouts out of his cell window, ‘Over here, Fritz!’ during an air raid is marvellously evocative of this.

But on the whole, you find yourself asking- what went wrong? I think Waters got sick of being known as a popular novelist in a climate where popularity and integrity are supposed to be incompatible. The sexuality of her characters is an issue. ‘Why oh why did I allow the phrase ‘Victorian lesbo romp,’ to cross my lips?’’ Waters complained in 2002, and it is true that the success of Tipping the Velvet and its subsequent TV adaptation led people to concentrate on the sexual aspect of the work rather than its story or language. I remember flicking through a Daily Star in some Sheffield pub a few years ago and seeing a couple of glamour models dressed as characters from the book. As many tabloid readers are homophobes who are against gay rights but like the idea of lesbians it’s easy to see how Waters would have been disgusted by the representation of her novels.

The mistake she has made with The Night Watch is to run too far the other way, into the arms of critics who have as just a shallow set of priorities. I’m reminded of John Irving’s rant in The World According to Garp: ‘Garp felt most people confused being profound with being sober, being earnest with being deep. Apparently, if you sounded serious, you were. Presumably, other animals could not laugh at themselves, and Garp believed that laughter was related to sympathy, which we were always needing more of.’ Waters has the capacities for lots of laughter and sympathy: but in this book she has not delivered it. It’s a missed opportunity.

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